6. No more giants (Chicago: City On The Make… Nelson Algren, 1951)

Chicago: City On The Make

Nelson Algren's "City on the Make"

by Nelson Algren, 1951

transcribed by Jack M Silverstein

5. Bright faces of tomorrow

It used to be a writer’s town and it’s always been a fighter’s town. For writers and fighters and furtive torpedoes, cat-bandits, baggage thieves, hallway head-lockers on the prowl, baby photographers and stylish coneroos, this is the spot that is always most convenient, being so centrally located, for settling ancestral grudges. Whether the power is in a .38, a typewriter ribbon or a pair of six-ouncers, the place has grown great on bone-deep grudges: of writers and fighters and furtive torpedoes.

“City of the big shoulders” was how the white-haired poet put it. Maybe meaning that the shoulders had to get that wide because they had so many bone-deep grudges to settle. The big dark grudge cast by the four standing in white muslin robes, hands cuffed behind, at the gallows’ head. For the hope of the eight-hour day.

The grudge between Grover Cleveland and John Peter Altgeld. The long deep grudges still borne for McCormick the Reaper, for Pullman and Pullman’s Gary. Grudges like heavy hangovers from men and women whose fathers were not yet born when the bomb was thrown, the court was rigged, and the deed was done.

And maybe it’s a poet’s town for the same reason it’s a working stiff’s town, both poet and working stiff being boys out to get even for funny cards dealt by an overpaid houseman weary long years ago.

John Peter Altgeld.

And maybe it’s a working stiff’s and a poet’s town because it’s also an American Legionnaire’s town, real Chamber of Commerce territory, the big banker-and-broker’s burg, where a softclothes dick with a paunch and no brain at all, simply no brain at all, decides what movies and plays we ought to see and what we mustn’t. An arrangement sufficient to make a sensitive burglar as well as a sensitive poet look around for the tools closest to hand.

Town of the hard and bitter strikes and the trigger-happy cops, where any good burglar with a sheet a foot long can buy a pass at a C-note per sheet: half a sheet, half a bill. Two sheets, two bills. Yes, and where the aces will tell the boy behind the bars, “Come on out of there, punk. You ain’t doin’ us no good in there. Out on the street ‘n get it up – everythin’ over a C you get to keep for yourself ‘n be in court with it at nine tomorrow or we’ll pick you up without it ‘n fit for a jacket.”

Where undried blood on the pavement and undried blood on the field yet remembers Haymarket and Memorial Day.

Most radical of all American cities: Gene Debs’ town, Big Bill Haywood’s town, the One-Big-Union town. Where woodworkers once came out on the First of May wearing pine shavings in their caps, brewers followed still wearing their aprons, and behind them the bakers, the barbers, the cornice-makers, tin-roofers and lumber-shovers, trailed by clerks and salesmen. As well as the town where the race riots of 1919 broke and the place where the professional anti-Semites still set up shop confident of a strong play from the North Shore.

"The Haymarket Affair": May 4, 1886.

Town of the flagpole sitters, iron city, where everything looks so old yet the people look so young. and the girl who breaks the world’s record for being frozen into blocks of ice between sprints at the Coliseum Walkathon breaks the selfsame record every night. And of that adolescent who paused in his gum-chewing, upon hearing the sentence of death by electrocution passed upon him, to remember ever so softly: “Knew I’d never get to be twenny-one anyhow.”

Town of the small, cheerful apartments, the beer in the icebox, the pipes in the rack, the children well behaved and the TV well tuned, the armchairs fatly upholstered and the record albums filed: 33 rpm, 45 rpm, 78 rpm. Where the 33 rpm husband and proud father eats all his vitamin-stuffed dinner cautiously and then streaks to the bar across the street to drink himself senseless among strangers, at 78 rpm, all alone.

Town of the great international clowns, where the transcontinental Barnum-and-Bailey buffoons stand on their heads for a picture on the sports page, a round of applause, a wardful of votes, a dividend or a friendly smile: Big Bill Thompson, King Levinsky, Yellow Kid Weil, Gorgeous George, Sewell Avery, Elizabeth Dilling, Joe Beauharnais, Sam Insull, Botsy Connors, Shipwreck Kelly, The Great I Am, and Oliver J. Dragon. And of course, the Only-One-on-Earth, the inventor of modern warfare, our very own dime-store Napoleon, Colonel McGooseneck.

Fred Merkle.

Town of the classic boners and the All-Time All-American bums, where they score ten runs after two are gone in the last of the ninth when the left-fielder drops an easy popup that should have been the third out. Final score: 10-8. Where somebody is always forgetting to touch second. And the local invincible, the boy most likely to be champion, faints open-eyed on the ropes in the very first round without being struck a blow because the champion is coming right toward him.

“I’ll do any damned thing you boys want me to do,” Mayor Kelly told his boys gratefully, and he kept his word.

Town of the great Lincolnian liberals, the ones who stuck out their stubborn necks in the ceaseless battle between the rights of Owners and the rights of Man, the stiff-necked wonders who could be broken but couldn’t be bent: Dreiser, Altgeld, Debs.

The only town for certain where a Philadelphia first-baseman can answer an attractive brunette’s invitation to step into her room: “I have a surprise for you” – and meet a shotgun blast under the heart. “The urge kept nagging at me and the tension built up. I thought killing someone would relieve it.” For the sad heart’s long remembrance.

Town of the blind and crippled newsies and the pinboys whose eyes you never see at all. Of the Montgomery-Ward sleepwalkers and all the careworn hopers from home with Expressman Death in their eyes reading all about it on the Garfield Park Local.

Montgomery Ward & Co., 618 W. Chicago Ave., built in 1907.

Town of the topless department stores, floor upon floor upon floor, where a sea-green light from the thousand-globed chandeliers drifts down the scented air, across oriental rugs and along long gleaming glass: where wait the fresh-cut sirloin tips, the great bloody T-bones and the choice center-cut pork chops, all with a freezing disdain for the ground hamburger.

A Jekyll-and-Hyde sort of burg, where one university’s faculty members can protest sincerely against restrictive covenants on the blighted streets bordering their campus – not knowing that the local pay roll draws on real estate covered by covenants like a tent. Let’s get back to them saints, Professor. It’s awful cold out there.

As the carillons of twelve A.M. divide the campus from the slum.

“The slums take their revenge,” the white-haired poet warned us thirty-two American League seasons and Lord-Knows-How-Many-Swindles-Ago. “Always somehow or other their retribution can be figured in any community.”

Carl Sandburg.

The slums take their revenge. And you can take your pick of the avengers among the fast international set at any district-station lockup on any Saturday night. The lockups are always open and there are always new faces. Always someone you never met before, and where they all come from nobody knows and where they’ll go from here nobody cares.

The giants cannot come again; all the bright faces of tomorrow are careworn hustlers’ faces.

And the place always gets this look of some careworn hustler’s tomorrow by night, as the arch of spring is mounted and May turns into June. It is then that the women come out of the summer hotels to sit one stone step above the pavement, surveying the men curb-sitting one step below it. Between them pass the nobodies from nowhere, the nobodies nobody knows, with faces cut from the same cloth as their caps, and the women whose eyes reflect nothing but the pavement.

The nameless, useless nobodies who sleep behind the taverns, who sleep beneath the El. Who sleep in burnt-out busses with the windows freshly curtained; in winterized chicken coops or patched-up truck bodies. The useless, helpless nobodies nobody knows: that go as the snow goes, where the wind blows, there and there and there, down any old cat-and-ashcan alley at all. There, unloved and lost forever, lost and unloved for keeps and a day, there far below the ceaseless flow of TV waves and FM waves, way way down there where no one has yet heard of phonevision nor considered the wonders of technicolor video – there, there below the miles and miles of high-tension wires servicing the miles and miles of low-pressure cookers, there, there where they sleep on someone else’s pool table, in someone else’s hall or someone else’s jail, there were they chop kindling for heat, cook over coal stoves, still burn kerosene for light, there where they sleep the all-night movies through and wait for rain or peace or snow: there, there beats Chicago’s heart.

There, unheard by the millions who ride the waves above and sleep, and sleep and dream, night after night after night, loving and well beloved, guarding and well guarded, beats the great city’s troubled heart.

The Nelson Algren Fountain at the Division/Ashland/Milwaukee triangle intersection.

And all the stately halls of science, the newest Broadway hit, the endowed museums, the endowed opera, the endowed art galleries, are not for their cold pavement-colored eyes. For the masses who do the city’s labor also keep the city’s heart. And they think there’s something fishy about someone giving them a museum for nothing and free admission on Saturday afternoons.

They sense somebody got a bargain, and they are so right. The city’s arts are built upon the uneasy consciences that milked the city of millions on the grain exchange, in traction and utilities and sausage-stuffing and then bought conscience-ease with a minute fraction of the profits. A museum for a traction system, an opera building for a utilities empire. Therefore the arts themselves here, like the acres of Lorado Taft’s deadly handiwork, are largely statuary. Mere monuments to the luckier brokers of the past. So the people why away from their gifts, they’re never sure quite why.

The place remains a broker’s portage. And an old-time way station for pimps as well. Both professions requiring the same essential hope of something for nothing and a soft-as-goosefeathers way to go. A portage too for the fabulous engines: the Harvester, the sleeping car and the Bessemer Process.

Yet never a harvest in sight hereabouts for humanity’s spirit, uprooted over half the world and well deceived here at home.

No room, no time, no breath for the Bessemer processes of the heart.

PREVIOUS: Bright faces of tomorrow

Photo credits.

John Peter Altgeld.

Haymarket Affair.

Merkle’s Boner.

Montgomery Ward.

Carl Sandburg.

Nelson Algren Fountain.


2 Replies to “6. No more giants (Chicago: City On The Make… Nelson Algren, 1951)”

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